Howard teacher critical of schools may lose post

Former board candidate says firing is `retaliation' for outspoken campaign

April 23, 2000|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

The outspoken Howard County teacher who ran for the Board of Education this year -- criticizing the school system in the process -- is in danger of losing her job.

By letter last week, Superintendent Michael E. Hickey told Kristine Lockwood, a seventh-grade language-arts teacher at Glenwood Middle School, that he will recommend that the school board not renew her contract.

The board is scheduled to vote on the issue Thursday night.

Lockwood, who is in her second year of teaching, does not have tenure. Administrators can let an untenured teacher go without giving a reason, and Hickey did not supply one in his letter.

Patti Caplan, the schools' spokeswoman, said administrators are "unable" to comment on any personnel issue.

"That's for our protection as well as the employee's," she said. "I do want to stress that we're looking at a teaching shortage and we're doing everything we can to retain good teachers. We work with our teachers, both tenured and nontenured, in areas of weakness. So we don't take this lightly."

Though it's not a requirement, Howard County principals generally observe untenured teachers they judge to be weak, set goals for them and evaluate their progress, Caplan said.

Dan Michaels, principal at Glenwood Middle School, declined to comment on Lockwood's situation.

A vocal candidate

Lockwood said she met the goals Michaels set for her, and she defended her teaching skills. Six of her pupils have won writing awards in the past two years, she said.

The 30-year-old Columbia resident placed seventh in the close school board primary last month. The top four of the 18 candidates advanced and will compete in the general election in November.

Had she been elected, Lockwood would have had to give up her teaching position.

During the campaign, she characterized the education that students get in Howard County as "mediocre" and called for more assistance for teachers, especially new instructors. She told voters about problems she saw in the system. She said she asked for special-education services for pupils but that school officials would not test the children to determine whether they were eligible.

She has filed several grievances with the school system in the past few months but said her contract prohibits her from discussing them.

Lockwood said Hickey's decision was "retaliation" for her outspokenness during the campaign and in the school system.

"On one hand, you can say they're punishing me," she said. "On the other hand, I think they're afraid to keep me. They're afraid I'm going to let the public know what's going on.

"They don't want us to tell a parent if their child is struggling. They don't want us to tell a parent if the child should be in a GT [gifted and talented] class. They don't want us to tell parents anything. They're afraid we're going to cost them time and money."

Hickey said he couldn't comment on the reason he's recommending against renewing Lockwood's contract except to say, "It absolutely had nothing to do with running for the board or being outspoken."

Union raises concern

Joe Staub, president of the Howard County Education Association, which represents teachers and other school employees, said he was concerned that Hickey's recommendation came during spring break. Staff members were on vacation and the union office was closed.

Staub said he would speak to Hickey about Lockwood's situation but didn't know what avenues for appeal existed: "We're not going to have much time to address it."

Though he said he isn't familiar with all the details, Staub doesn't think Lockwood is being punished for criticizing the schools.

Some Glenwood Middle School parents said they're confused and upset about the situation.

"I was very angry when I found out, because Kristine is an excellent teacher," said Laura Decker, whose 12-year-old son, Keith, is in Lockwood's class.

"He said he liked her because she makes learning fun. I keep up on his work, and I love her teaching style."

Lockwood also brings in parents to tutor pupils who need extra help and coordinates the activities, Decker said.

Woodbine resident Gail Kass-Smith said her older daughter has developed an interest in writing because of the language-arts teacher. This school year, the seventh-grader won an award for a story about prejudice after Lockwood submitted it to a local contest.

"What would precipitate getting rid of a teacher that is so well-liked?" asked Barry Tevelow, whose son is one of Lockwood's pupils. "I think it's a real mistake, and it really speaks to some of the problems in the system."

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